The Sentinel-Record

Did ship’s anchor cause California oil spill? Maybe, officials say


HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Officials investigat­ing one of California’s largest recent oil spills are looking into whether a ship’s anchor may have struck an oil pipeline on the ocean floor, causing heavy crude to leak into coastal waters and foul beaches, authoritie­s said Monday.

The head of the company that operates the pipeline said company divers were inspecting the area of the suspected leak that was discovered Saturday, and he expected that by Tuesday there would be a clearer of what caused the damage.

A anchor from a cargo ship striking the pipeline is “one of the distinct possibilit­ies” behind the leak, Amplify Energy CEO Martyn Willsher told a news conference. He said divers have examined more than 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) of the pipeline and were focusing on “one area of significan­t interest.”

Cargo ships entering the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach routinely pass through the area, Coast Guard officials said. Backlogs have plagued the ports in recent months and several dozen or more of the giant vessels have regularly been anchored as they wait to enter the ports and unload.

“We’re looking into if it could have been an anchor from a ship, but that’s in the assessment phase right now,” Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Jeannie Shaye said.

The spill sent up to 126,000 gallons (572,807 liters) of heavy crude into the ocean, contaminat­ing the sands of famed Huntington Beach and other coastal communitie­s. The spill could keep beaches closed for weeks or longer.

The Orange County district attorney, Todd Spitzer, said he has investigat­ors looking into whether he can bring state charges for the spill even though the leak occurred in waters overseen by the U.S. government.

Spitzer also said Amplify’s divers should not be allowed near the pipeline without an independen­t authority alongside them.

Other potential criminal investigat­ions were being pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, the Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, officials said.

Safety advocates have pushed for years for federal rules that would strengthen oil spill detection requiremen­ts and force companies to install valves that can automatica­lly shut down the flow of crude in case of a leak. The oil and pipeline industries have resisted such requiremen­ts because of the high cost.

“If the operator had more valves installed on this line, they’d have a much better chance at having the point of failure isolated by now,” said Bill Caram with the Pipeline Safety Trust, an organizati­on based in Bellingham, Washington.

The pipeline was built using a process known as electric resistance weld, according to a regulatory filing from the company. That welding process has been linked to past oil pipeline failures because corrosion can occur along seams, according to government safety advisories and Pipeline Safety Trust Director Bill Caram.

Annual reports filed with federal regulators in 2019 and 2020 showed inspection­s for the inside and outside of the pipe revealed nothing requiring repairs.

On Sunday as the extent of the spill was being revealed environmen­talists had feared the oil might devastate birds and marine life in the area. But Michael Ziccardi, a veterinari­an and director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, said only four oily birds had been found so far. One suffered chronic injuries and had to be euthanized, he said.

“It’s much better than we had feared,” he said at a news conference Monday.

Ziccardi said he’s “cautiously optimistic,” but it’s too soon to know the extent of the spill’s effect on wildlife. In other offshore oil spills, the largest number of oiled birds have been collected two to five days after the incident, he said.

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